If Mr. Rogers Were President: We Need Him More Than Ever

Originally published on Tikkun Daily, June 15, 2011

When it came to understanding and communicating with people of all ages, Fred Rogers was a genius.

Fred Rogers knew what really made people tick. First, he was a life-long student of human development. Indeed, he studied under some of the best child psychologists and psychiatrists of his time. Second, he had a natural gift for relating to people. Third, and most important of all, he was not afraid to talk with children about the most difficult subjects such as death and divorce. As a result, he helped people of all ages face and surmount their deepest anxieties and fears. This alone makes Fred relevant for today’s world where straight talk about difficult problems is the exception.

In short, Fred was a rare mixture of calm reason, constant reassurance, and never-ending emotional availability. Very few have all three, let alone each to a high degree. I know this for a personal fact. I was not only fortunate to meet Fred on numerous occasions, but to have many discussions with those who worked with Fred’s TV production company. In addition, I have studied his work intensively.

What then if Fred were President? What would he say to reassure Americans in this time of great economic pain and turmoil? While of course none of us know for sure, and I will undoubtedly be accused of putting my words and thoughts into Fred’s mouth, I believe he would say something in the spirit of the following:

My fellow neighbors, I want to speak with you today about the great economic crisis we are facing. As you know, I have never shied away from talking straightforwardly about the most difficult and painful subjects. In fact, some of you may remember that the day after President Kennedy was assassinated, I spoke directly to the children who watched me on TV about what the word ‘assassinated’ meant so that I could address their fears.

I want to speak to you about the economic crisis we are facing in terms of the values for which I have long stood. Let me single out four that are particularly pertinent: 1. Our feelings affect us more than we are generally aware; therefore, we need to be always mindful of them; 2. We need to respect especially those with whom we disagree the strongest and to try to work constructively with them; 3. We fool ourselves if we think we don’t need rules and clear expressions of what we stand to guide our lives; and, 4. To communicate effectively – to really reach people–we need to speak directly to their fundamental, underlying anxieties and fears, but not in ways that amplify or pander to them; at the same time, we also need to speak to the positive – the enduring hopes and dreams that have made this country a joy in which to live.

“I am deeply disturbed by so much of the language that shapes – ‘distorts’ is more apt – our national discourse. First of all, there is far too much talk to the effect that government is the enemy and that somehow everything would be all right if we just got rid of it. Such talk is naïve and irresponsible. In the first and last resort, we – our neighbors – are the government. If we want to make government better, then we have to make ourselves better. The answer is not to do away with government, and certainly not us. Whether we like it not, the government and we are inseparable. Neither can exist without the other.

Nonetheless, I understand, even if I do not accept, why many people feel this way. In far too many cases, government has let us down. It has been ineffective and inefficient, wracked by petty wrangling, and on and on. Each of us can easily list a hundred faults. But what institution is entirely free of faults? We don’t want to get rid of business because it does not always act in the public good. We want to improve it by making it more humane.

Government has a fundamental role to play in problems that affect us all. What other entity is charged with dealing with problems that affect the whole?

I want to reaffirm my deep and abiding commitment to you. I will do everything in my power to address the great economic turmoil we are facing. Indeed, I am willing to stake my entire Presidency on it.

My first commitment is to get people back to work. If the private sector cannot create enough jobs, then the government must step up.

I know that many are saying that the deficits are already too high and that we cannot afford to add to them. To this I say: the time to withhold and conserve water is not when one’s house is on fire, but after it is safe from burning down altogether.

We cannot run from our problems. We either face them together as neighbors or we will perish as strangers completely cut off and isolated from one another, and worst of all, from ourselves as separate individuals.

To deal with life’s problems, we have to get beyond ourselves. We have to discover a bigger purpose in life. We have to shift from short-term solutions to long-range strategies. But this can only happen when we reach out to and help one another.

Although they express it very differently from adults, children have a keen interest in spirituality. They want to know who they are and why they are here. And although adults may deny and ignore it, these same questions persist throughout our entire lives. All of us are searching for meaning and purpose. All of us want to know why we are here.

We are here to be and to work together as neighbors.

Fred Rogers’ life had great meaning and purpose because he helped others to find it in their lives as well. This was his purpose! We need his wisdom more than ever.

There is no more fitting note on which to end than Fred himself: “The values we care about the deepest, and the movements within society that support those values, command our love. When those things that we care about so deeply become endangered, we become engaged. And what a healthy thing that is! Without it, we would never stand up and speak out for what we believe.”

Originally published on Tikkun Daily, June 15, 2011

About imitroff

Dr. Ian Mitroff is Professor Emeritus at the Marshall School of Business and the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. He is the president and founder of Mitroff Crisis Management, a private consulting firm based in Oakland, California, that specializes in the treatment of human-caused crises. He is a Senior Affiliate with the Center for Catastrophic Risk Management at the University of California, Berkeley.
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